Margaret Cho has made it her living to stand up — in comedy, as an advocate for equal rights, for women, for life. And now she’s sending her messages on a rockin’ musical platform.
She’s kinda, a whole lotta, totally the greatest. And I’ve thought so since the first time I saw her stand-up at a small comedy club in San Francisco. Let’s say….many years ago.
And since then — MARGARET CHO has been my answer to everything. When I wanted a voice but was too feeble to voice it. When I wanted to see my face on TV, but was told it doesn’t exist. When I wanted to be loud and funny — but my mom told me to…well….not be loud and funny.
Well, the Korean Wonder Woman has a new album coming out TOMORROW (FRIDAY), April 29th — a follow up to her super grand and lyrically delicious Grammy Nominated CHO-DEPENDENT release. This one is called AMERICAN MYTH and it’s empirically fab.
Photo credit: Dusti Cunningham
Everything she does is smart and on point. She delivers socially and politically and personally charged bits — but to make it palatable to the mass, it’s packaged in either a hilarious and lighthearted tone (in her comedy) or via hooky and catchy cadences in her songs. We’re laughing or tapping our toes before knowing we should have been caught off guard or feeling morose, poignant sadness. The ability for an artist to pull their audience in two polarizing directions takes genius.
MARGARET CHO has been applauded for years for her hilarity and more recently for her musicianship. But what people forget to comment on is her immeasurable intelligence which is likely the leading factor in her being beautifully confrontational and forever skirting convention. I told her I thought she was a closeted model minority and most likely MENSA. “You are to the Grammys and Emmys what your Asian counterparts are to Harvard.” She humbly laughed.
I’m grateful to have had the chance to interview her this month. Our conversation ranged from the hilarity of us growing up Korean, her anger (and empowerment) after being raped, the sadness from her miscarriages and the cathartic release of giving birth to this upcoming album — a work of art made with her closest friends. MARGARET CHO is a huge contribution to the world. I thought so before I spoke to her — and even moreso after.
Thank you, Margaret.
photo credit: Mary Taylor
Margaret! So, if you were applying for health insurance or a mortgage — and you had to check a self defining box/occupation (attorney, doctor, actor, etc.), what would you choose? (Assuming there is no box for “other.”)
Well, it would be stand up comedian. When I fill out a form to go to another country, I mark “Comedian.” It’s the truest thing to what I am and what I’m closest to — and I think everything else is filtered through there. Even my music is part of me being a comedian.
So regardless of all your tangential paths, it’s your soul.
Ha. Right. It’s like being Korean!
Ha, TOTALLY. Your core and blood.
Although I did the Finding Your Roots thing, and they told me in my DNA, I’m actually Chinese. It all predates the days of borders and nations. We’re all Chinese – but my parents are in denial. (laughs)
So, Margaret. I’m obsessed with your latest. This album is emotionally thrilling — melodically, lyrically, etc. It’s all my favorites in one sonic stop — a rad composite of you, Garrison Starr, Wilco.
I can’t stop playing “Come Over Me” and “Gentleman Jim,” which I think is an ode to Mazzy Star. It’s a heavenly mug of country and singer songwriter…Liz Phair meets Tenacious D.
I just wish there was Natural Born Killers Part Deux so “Gentleman Jim” had an immediate home.
Aw I love that! THANK YOU! And you have great taste by the way!
Ha, thank you. But how would YOU describe your musical style and who are your influences?
What I like to do is I get a lot from the singers that I’m friends with and that I write with like Garrison Starr who’s the main collaborator with me on this record. And I learned a lot about singing and the art of it from Fiona Apple who’s also a good friend of mine — and from watching Wilco every night on the Americana tour. And I would see different people like Sean Lennon and Cibo Matto.
I loved to see them working – it’s very powerful to me. There are a lot of different influences – but yes there is definitely a country feeling and also a little bit of Beatles. I enjoy making music and for me it’s a life long passion and something I’ll do whether I have an audience or not. It’s for me to do. And it’s so fun.
Photo credit: Dusti Cunningham
I know you grew up playing piano. But, composing is another world. Did you just start composing? What was the growth and transition?
Well you know how Korean parents are about their Korean piano lessons. Korean parents encourage a passion for music – but not TOO much. Unless they’re grooming you for a classical career – which is another specific thing.
My family is very churchy so they were always singing and playing. They were all musicians so it was just something I was familiar with growing up — so I have an understanding of how to read music through all of those years of piano lessons. But I always like the guitar better since I was always more drawn to string.
I figured out how to compose by watching Jon Brion, Grant Lee Phillips — just by watching people. My first guitar teacher was Josh Klinghoffer [Red Hot Chili Peppers] so I have a lot of really incredible people behind me, teaching me on a fast track how to produce and be in the studio. So I truly have a good education in music.
I’ve watched Andrew Bird and Patty Griffin write a song — and I’ve written with them and figured it out. So I’m very lucky in that regard. Everyone has their own idiosyncratic thing that they bring to the songwriting process — and I just collected different parts of it and learned how to do it by watching the best. And when I went to write this record, I figured out how to compose.
How did you hook up with all your musical compadres like Garrison and Ben Lee? Were they friends first or was it through music that you met them?
I’ve been friends with Garrison because I loved her music and I’d go see her. And then over time, I made a video for her then we wrote songs together and we became very tight.
I’ve known Jon Brion since the early 90s and I just worshipped his singing and songwriting — and later his production.
I learned a lot from Grant Lee Philips – probably the most of anyone.
So these are my friends. Fiona, etc. From a social, performance and musical aspect. When we made this, it was just part of us having fun together and going to all these home studios and hanging out. It’s just through interaction of my social life.
Photo credit: Todd V Wolfson
Was the making of this album a spontaneous urge or has this been a work in progress since Cho Dependent?
Garrison had a desire to create an album that originated with the same musicians and the same place – so we had writing sessions in Georgia when I was living there and we put the record together from those. And certain bonus tracks like “I want to Kill My Rapist” was done in LA. So it’s a standalone record that we did in one piece.
“I am extremely proud to release American Myth. This is an album of anthems and showcases my first efforts as a composer. I made it with my longtime collaborator Garrison Starr and an incredible and inspiring crew of artists. It is my glamorous and glittering tribute to family, comedy, anger, fame, gayness, grief, fat pride, love and hate. “ – Margaret Cho
You always allow yourself to be vulnerable and super exposed – and trust the receivers. “Anna Nicole,” “Come With Me,” “Georgia Song” — they’re totally sing songy and beautiful…but dark within. Which song on the album is the biggest disclosure and revelation? Does one song hold more emotional clout than the others?
I think it’s probably “Come With Me” — that’s a deep one. A lot of it is about not having a child, not being able to have a child, having miscarriages and having these things that don’t allow me to have children. I always look at someone that would be the age of my child that I lost.
And this song is about sex workers – young male prostitutes that I want to buy just so I could take him to an amusement part. That’s the desire that I have when I see kids around me. It’s really painful.
And as you know, in our country, you’re so invalid if you don’t have children. Koreans won’t allow you to just be you. You have to have a family. You have to have two. You have to have a husband. They want that so much for you and I’ve failed at that.
Are you still pressured by your parents?
Yes. To them, that’s the idea of completion. You’re not really alive until you have kids. And that song is the most deeply personal. And then I guess it would be “Georgia Sky” which is about someone you love to fuck but you hate them. (laughs)
Is adoption not in the picture?
Yes that’s something that I think about but I don’t know if I’m able to. Maybe I don’t have children now or I haven’t adopted one so far because I’m afraid of loving somebody so much. With a child, they HAVE you. You do not have the upper hand in the relationship ever. Maybe that’s what it is. There are so many children and so many needs for people to do that — so I feel that will be my eventuality. But it’s just a consistent fear.
For those who listen to your album…they will love your album. But, there’s always the Rage Against The Machine type of preaching to the choir. Whom outside of your fans would you want to reach?
Oh, well it’s a good record. You’re like – people can project whatever ideas they want onto it and my messages are very clear – but at the same time you can take music and not necessarily need to know the story behind it.
It’s weird when you’re in a position where I am and you’re known as a comedian. It’s not comedy music exactly – but it’s also not exactly Bacon Brothers either. Although I love the Bacon Brothers! But I would make music even if nobody listened.
So, Margaret. There’s responsibility in being the face and voice for Asians — and Koreans in particular. Is this pressure? Is this an honor? How do you perceive it?
Oh, it’s such an honor since I’m an Ajumma [note: means “aunt” or “married aged woman” in Korean] now. I’m the first Ajumma now of Asian American artists. So the kids have such an incredible respect for what I’ve done. From Ken Jeong to Bobby Lee. So many others really acknowledge my contribution and it’s deep.
You really did open the doors.
Yes and I love that a WOMAN did it!
In Korean culture – even in America – we don’t have a voice. We don’t even say their name. We’re known as what man we’re married to or whom we gave birth to. And we never have a place for ourselves. That’s why I get get bugged with the honorific. We don’t know anyone’s fucking names.
Do you find irony that a tatted outspoken lesBionic Woman is the spokesperson for model minorities?
“Just go for your dreams! Because it’s possible.” – Margaret Cho
(Laughs) I think it’s great! It’s like they couldn’t control it. I went from Gee Jib Eh to Ajumma so fast. And they couldn’t control me in any way throughout my entire life. This is what’s so good about it. There were so many Koreans in professions that they don’t want to be in because of their family. But then they find themselves midlife wondering who they are. It’s rough. So I’d like to stop that. One thing I’d like to prevent from happening. Just go for your dreams! Because it’s possible.
Do you filter yourself ever? Do you ever care or get scared of what your parents think? Like in your music or comedy? They don’t get mad? I know Korean parents!
Oh, they get SO MAD! The one topic they get mad about is rape. Because it happened in my family. My mother even opened up a private email account (they usually email me from their shared account) in order to scream at me about it. She always shared an email with my dad. This was different.
But I don’t want to be silent about it because I don’t want this to happen to other kids. They go on cruises with my molester. How do you go to the Grand Canyon with the guy who molested your daughter — and his daughter — and your sister? All of the family has been messed up by this one predator. I can’t be silent. It’s so absurd — but also so much pain for them because it’s their suffering of not protecting me but also me not being complacent in the silence. It’s been so hard.
They have been so supportive in my career but that’s the one subject which they ask me not to talk about. But I have to. And it’s hard for me to understand why they’d want this man in their house. They know his history so well.
They’re of the generation where if you silence it, then it didn’t exist.
Right. That’s what they want. They want this piece which I’m not able to get them yet. But it’s a process of us managing their culture while being ourselves. Always a struggle. I want to give survivors the power to tell them that your rapists are scared of YOU. YOU have the upper hand.
When are you going to be super Korean and get your black belt in taekwondo?
Haha. I TRIED to do it and then hurt myself and then went to an acupuncturist who left a needle in my leg for a couple of days. They forgot about it! So I have taekwondo fear. But yeah I should do it. Someday.
OK. If you had to. Kim Jong Eun or Donald Trump.
Oh God. They’re both so bad.
Last question: where’s the best place to find you online?
Thank you so much. You’re amazing.
Thank YOU. YOU’RE amazing.
[She said I was amazing. I died and went to heaven before the publication of this interview.]
+++ And thank you to Margaret Cho and Ken Phillips for making this interview possible.